These pages contain program notes written for Redwood
Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program
notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!
These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise
improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.
Piano Concerto No. 2
the spring of 1868, conductor and pianist Anton Rubenstein asked Camille Saint-Saëns to arrange a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris,
with Saint-Saëns as piano soloist and Rubenstein conducting. Upon
discovering that the hall was booked for three weeks, Saint-Saëns proposed that he spend the time writing a new piano
concerto that he could premiere, along with a performance of his first piano
concerto (1858) and his Tarantelle
knocked off the work in about two weeks, but that was barely enough time to
rehearse, and the piece suffered from the lack of polish at the May 8
The audience was not very receptive, and pianist Zygmunt Stojowski famously
joked that its musical styles were all over the map: “it begins with Bach and
ends with Offenbach.”
Liszt, however, to whom Saint-Saëns sent a copy of the score, knew a crowd-pleaser when
he saw one. He wrote:
want to thank you again for your Second Concerto, which I greatly applaud. ...
you take into just account the role of the pianist without sacrificing
anything of the ideas of the composer, which is an essential rule in this
class of work... The totality of
the work pleases me singularly. It ought to meet with success in every
indeed, the concerto soon began pleasing both soloists and audiences, who
admired its dash, flair, and musical showmanship.
concerto breaks from the ordinary by placing the ‘slow’ movement in first
rather than second position. The Andante
begins with a Bach-like improvisation (hence Stojowksi’s quip) that soon
segues to dramatic arpeggios—typical for Saint-Saëns, who began his career as a child keyboard prodigy.
The main theme was based on a Tantum
ergo motet that Gabriel Fauré
had shown to his teacher Saint-Saëns, who is said to have exclaimed, “Give this to me.
I can make something of it!” And so he did, pairing the melancholy tune with a
second motif of his own, embellished in thirds. The movement closes with a huge
cadenza for the soloist, and the reprise of the Bach motif.
the G minor of the opening we move to E-flat major in the Allegro
Marked leggieramente, “light and brisk,” the movement is a witty
conversation in 6/8
between the soloist and orchestra, with flashes of the same humor we know
so well from the composer’s later Carnival
of the Animals
finale, Presto, returns to G minor in a tarantella, the fast and furious Italian form well-loved by the Romantic composers.
The piano soloist exchanges rapid-fire dialog with the full orchestra, in what
one current critic has described as “chase-me-Charlie up and down the
keyboard.” The 2/2
rondo ends with a brilliant coda that Liszt no doubt recognized—being
something of a ham himself—as a chance for the soloist to pull out all the
stops and “bring ‘em home.”
July 19, 2008